Himmler Orders Construction of Auschwitz, 1940
On This Day in Jewish History: April 27th, 1940
On April 27th, 1940, Heinrich Himmler, the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany, ordered the construction of a concentration camp in the Polish town of Oświęcim after investigating multiple locations.
Himmler was an early member of the Nazi party, joining in 1925. However, he had a close relationship with Adolf Hitler as Himmler had participated in Hitler’s 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. He would be appointed in charge of the German police force and in 1933 would establish the first concentration camp in Germany: Dachau. Himmler would be instrumental in turning Germany into a police state where state-sponsored terror became the norm. After the outbreak of the Second World War, Himmler would be given an expanded portfolio of responsibilities including the organisation of concentration and death camps in occupied Poland and the administration of occupied-Soviet territories. Himmler was one of the primary architects of the Final Solution.
Oświęcim is a small Polish town that throughout its history has been occupied or controlled by its neighbours, notably coming under Austrian control in 1772, only returning to Poland in 1918 after the First World War. Located just sixty kilometres from the Polish city of Kraków and is the epicentre of a vast railway network stretching across Europe with lines going from Kraków to the Austrian capital of Vienna. The town sat between the Soła and Vistula rivers.
Oświęcim has a long Jewish presence that goes back centuries. While records were not precise, there were believed to be over 100 Jews living in Oświęcim in 1765. By 1861 this number had grown to 1447 Jews out of a population of 2792 people, making up more than half of the population. In 1863, a fire broke out in the town destroying two synagogues. Before the Second World War, the town was home to 14000 people, half of whom were Jewish. The community was home to almost 30 synagogues, of which only 1 remains today. The Great Synagogue of Oświęcim, once the centre of Jewish life in the small town, could hold upwards of 2000 congregants. After the Polish Capitulation in 1939, it would be burnt down by the Nazis.
During the initial 6 months of occupation, the Nazis had begun a reign of terror mass-arresting Poles and quickly filling up local prisons. The Nazis decided to expand their concentration camp system that had been run in Germany since the Nazis took power in the 1930s. The initial concentration camp, which would become known as Auschwitz I, would be set up in a captured Polish artillery barracks in Oświęcim. The location was chosen for its large railway junction making it easy to transport prisoners and supplies by rail from across Nazi-occupied and aligned Europe. The large forests surrounding the town made escape and allied espionage difficult. The camp was planned to house 30 000 Polish political prisoners and subject them to forced labour. Auschwitz would receive its first transport of over 700 Poles, including Polish Jews, in June of 1940.
Over the next few years, the camp would be expanded, and other camps built up around it. In 1941, the construction of a second camp, three kilometres away from the artillery barracks, in the village of Brzezinka. The local population was expelled from their houses and Auschwitz-Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, would be opened. The camp was designed with gas chambers and crematoriums. After the Wannsee Conference, Auschwitz would become the largest death camp, with over 1.1 million people murdered at the camp, with Jews making up 90% of the victims.
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